The slaying of Father Jacques Hamel at the altar of the church of Saint Etienne-de Rouvray in Normandy should be the envy of every priest: to die at Mass, the holiest hour of the world. The president of France was heartfelt in his mourning, but Monsieur Hollande was also historically remiss when he said: “To attack a church, to kill a priest, is to profane the republic.” He spoke from the comfortable remove of the Fifth Republic, which would not exist were it not for the First Republic whose tone had been set by Denis Diderot (1713-84): “Et ses mains ourdiraient les entrailles du prêtre, Au défaut d’un cordon pour étrangler les rois.” Variously translated, it expressed the desire to strangle kings with the entrails of priests. Thomas Jefferson, a defender of the Reign of Terror, to the chagrin of Washington and Hamilton, called Diderot “among the most virtuous of men.” This was consistent with his note to Baron Alexander von Humboldt in 1813: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.” A year later he wrote to Horatio Spofford: “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty…”
There are those who trace a paradox in the way the self-styled Age of Reason exploded in a Reign of Terror. But if a paradox is a coherent contradiction, one should not be dismayed if a decimalized society ruled only by brains should end up decimating populations and splattering brains on the pavement. Granted, anyone familiar with some of the bewildering things that bishops’ conferences have said about politics and economics could be wary of clerics on the public platform, if not the scaffold. But the fever that makes priests targets for irrational frustration never seems to abate. For the patron saint of parish priests, John Vianney, the priesthood is purely and simply “the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.” That love incarnated in a consecrated man is why those who hate that love hate priests. Nietzsche set in motion the infernal wheels of modern neo-pagan cruelty when he said, “priests are the most evil enemies.”
Archbishop Georges Darboy of Paris was assassinated by the radical Communards in 1871, having inherited his pectoral cross from Archbishop Francois Morlot who in turn had inherited it from Archbishop Marie-Dominique-Auguste Sibour who was assassinated in 1857 in the Church of Etienne-du-Mont by one of his own priests who, in his mental instability, violently objected to clerical celibacy and the newly defined dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Monseigneur Sibour had inherited the pectoral cross from Archbishop Denis Auguste Affre who was shot while wearing it as he called for truce on the barricades during the riots of 1848, in response to the pleas of Blessed Frederic Ozanam to protect the poor. That pectoral cross is a reverently preserved relic, but no less precious than the crosses now being torn down from churches throughout the Middle East.
Following the death of Father Hamel the present Archbishop of Paris, André Vingt-Trois, spoke words worthy of his noble predecessors when he arraigned the “silence” of a secular society: “The silence of the elites against the decline of morals and legalizing of aberrations…. Where will we find the strength to face these dangers? For those of us who believe in Jesus Christ hope lies in trusting in His Word.”
But when Cardinal Raymond Burke stated empirically that Islam is motivated by a relentless intent to subjugate all other cultures to its creed, the archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said: “I don’t think that helps at all.” Martin went on to say: “Long term solutions come from education.” Thus, Mohammed himself might have been more restrained in his volatile personal habits if he had attended a decent prep school. Long-term solutions are no consolation to Christians right now as they are beheaded, burned alive, tossed from rooftops, mutilated, and crucified. One thinks of a short story by the Edwardian H.H. Munro (“Saki”) called “Toys of Peace.” A socially enlightened mother urges her brother to bring his nephews as an Easter gift something not warlike, and more in keep with the educational standards of the National Peace Council. The boys were expecting a toy fortress with Albanian soldiery and Somali camel-corps and were more than mildly disappointed to find that the fort was modeled on the Manchester branch of the Women’s Christian Association and, instead of soldiers, there were the freethinker John Stuart Mill, Robert Raikes who had founded the Sunday School system, a poetess, and the inventor of penny postage. By the end of the day, the nephews had turned the Women’s Christian Association into a fort where the toy humanitarians were slaughtering each other. And, so too, the reverie of Archbishop Martin for resolving the world’s ills through education, vaporizes when up against human nature. As Clemenceau said of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points: “They would work if people were not human.”
A Vatican spokesman said that the killing of Father Hamel was “absurd.” That is not so if one understands the logic of the Quran and the “arationality” of Allah who is pure will not subject to reason. Not even the vast numbers of kind and sympathetic Muslims in many lands can alter the indelible texts that are said to come directly from an inspired mouth and cannot be changed. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote: “…authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence.” More perplexing than this wishful eisegesis is the earnest effort of our Holy Father to preserve peace where there is no peace. On May 16, he told the French newspaper La Croix: “It is true that the idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam, however, it is also possible to interpret the objective in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus sends his disciples to all nations, in terms of the same conquest.” Now, it is indeed possible to interpret the Gospel that way, but to do so would require Christ crucifying instead of being crucified, and the apostles beheading instead of being beheaded. The pope also said he “dreaded” the term “Christian roots of Europe” because of its “colonialist overtones.” But those overtones have been the clarions of human dignity and the heralds of moral freedom.
During his flight back from Poland, Pope Francis said, “when I go through the newspapers, I see violence: this man kills his girlfriend, another who kills his mother-in-law. And these are baptized Catholics. If I speak of Islamic violence I must speak of Catholic violence.” The problem here is the lame equation of Jihad and domestic violence. A soldier knows the difference between genocide and shouting across the breakfast table. The Holy Father is moved by the sentiments of a generous heart, but informal and unsystematic streams of consciousness on airplanes, however well intentioned, are not made altruistic by being spoken at a high altitude.
In Poland, the pope delicately pressed the case for borders open to immigrants. For centuries, the heroic Poles have had unhappy experience of unwelcome groups crossing their borders. The world is immeasurably indebted to that great Pole, Jan Sobieski, for going beyond his own realm to defend the walls of Vienna in 1683, launching his rescue operation on a fateful September 11. He was disappointed but not surprised when the French refused to help. We would not be writing or reading these words were it not for the cavalcade of other defenders of borders: Charles Martel at Tours in 732, Saint Juan of Capistrano at Belgrade in 1456, Andrea Doria and Don Juan at Lepanto in 1571, Saint Lawrence of Brindisi in Hungary in 1601. By way of contrast, about 60 percent of the 115,000 clergy in France surrendered during the Terror’s season for slaughtering priests, saving their necks and sometimes becoming schismatic bishops. In 1790, as the government was cobbling together a puppet “Constitutional Church,” as an alternative to Rome, the papal secretary of state, Cardinal Zelada, wrote to the nuncio in Paris, Cardinal Francois de Bernis: “The Holy Father is not persuaded that the zeal of his bishops is suitably stirred up in reaction to this enormity.”
Following the terrorist killing of Father Hamel, a friend asked me to write a response, and, occupied as a parish priest with other matters, I had little more than one hour to do it. To my surprise the brief item “A Christian Duty in the Face of Terror” was “linked” to media sources from Sweden to Israel. One website received more than two thousand comments in just two days. I merely had explained the Church’s normal teaching on self-defense in the face of terror. Apparently, it was something of a revelation to Catholics who have been formed in the present generation to respond to terror with balloons and Teddy bears. In summary of what I said, the Catechism (2265) cites Thomas Aquinas to assert: “legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty from someone responsible for another’s life, the common good of the family or of the State.” That is attested by the witness of the martyrs of Cordoba, Saint Juan de Ribera, and the teaching of Saint Alphonsus Liguori.
The venerable Dominican scholar, Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, supervised the doctoral dissertation of St. John Paul II in Rome at the Angelicum. He said: “The Church is intolerant in principle because she believes; she is tolerant in practice because she loves. The enemies of the Church are tolerant in principle because they do not believe; they are intolerant in practice because they do not love.”
We do not know what Father Jacques Hamel thought about capitalism or climate change, but it is obvious that he loved, and loved intolerably, and, because of that, his last words to his killer were: “Va-t’en, Satan!” – “Begone, Satan!”